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CHINESE STRATEGY : Lessons for India


Paper 875                                                        31.12.2003

Guest Column-by Gaurang Bhatt

The history of China is replete with long periods of authoritarian unified rule interspersed with regional fragmentation, mob chaos and warlords.  Conquerors from neighboring related ethnic groups have absorbed its culture and Sinified.  The best example is of Kublai khan, who was of Mongol origin. China accepted Buddhism, a religion of India, but held on to Confucianism and its reverence of authority and cohesiveness of family through much of its history. The goal of its rulers has been preserving unity and preventing chaos.  Its people have been more concerned with order, satisfying material needs of the present life and tranquil safety, rather than worrying about afterlife and Nirvana.  It has had an arrogant superior attitude with amused disdain for foreigners, a trait it shares with present day America.   The tendency to turn inwards is what it shares with India of the Middle Ages and this contrasts sharply with the Western attitudes from the sixteenth century onwards. The dismantling of its huge fleet, abandonment of maritime exploration and rejection of foreign trade, turned it into a narcissistic introvert.  The insatiable demand for Chinese silk and porcelain by newly civilizing Europe, caused drainage of gold and silver from it to China.  This led Europe to coerce favorable trading practices.  America did the same to Japan over a century later by sending a fleet under Perry.  The British grew opium in India and forcibly sold it in China creating opium addicts.  Western practice of selling tobacco products and hazardous chemicals without appropriate warnings to less developed nations is an attenuated variation of past policies in the present era.  

European powers and America carved out fiefdoms, mostly in various parts of coastal China.  Their traders and officials were immune from local Chinese laws and entitled to preferential treatment, denied to the Chinese. This humiliation led to the Boxer rebellion, which was brutally suppressed by superior military strength and resultant more severe humiliation and discrimination against the Chinese.  The sad story was similar to the 1857 uprising in India, but to the credit of the Chinese, there were no Chinese Sepoys fighting their own people, like the ones in India.  Another difference helping to unite China more than India is that while spoken Chinese dialects sound different and maybe mutually incomprehensible, they are written in the same script and symbols and mean the same while sounding different when read. Japan, which had modernized and become a great power, defeated Russia in the 1905 war and subsequently occupied Korea, Taiwan and Manchuria as a prelude to colonizing Southeast Asia as a part of its Greater Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.  It committed atrocities and human experiments and torture during its rape of Nanking.  Chiang Kai Shek and his nationalist party joined the Allies during WW2 and received financial and military aid to fight the Japanese, from an America that had supported Japan for many years, prior to its attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. The Nationalists were corrupt and inept and were eventually driven off the Chinese mainland to Taiwan by the communists, who also drove out the Japanese eventually. 

This historical backdrop and the first humiliation by a different ethnic group from the Chinese (the whites), of an ancient and powerful civilization continuous over three millennia (a distinction currently shared in the whole world, only by India), is where the drama plays out, after the takeover of China by the Communists. The communists received massive support from its ally, the Soviet Union. They knew that its predecessor state Czarist Russia had taken over huge tracts of land in Siberia from the then weak Chinese kingdom, but made no bones about it.  The Communists were committed, brainwashed or sufficiently motivated not to suffer further or future humiliation, and restore China toits previous glory and boundaries over time.  Thus when General McArthur of America, disregarded Chou En Lai’s warning and crossed the Yalu River during the Korean War, China poured in a barrage of troops in a human wave to push the American troops back to the 38th parallel, resulting in a stalemate that led to an armistice. This was done at the cost of huge Chinese casualties and in spite of the fact that America had nuclear weapons and China did not.  Contrast that with India’s mobilization after the December attack by Pakistani terrorists on India’s parliament.  India wasted enormous resources, lost army morale and men, in mining the border and achieved nothing except forcing Pakistan to expend scarce resources in countering the move. 

Roughly a decade later, China took over Tibet, a region with a prior history of paying tribute to China and acknowledging its suzerainty.  It picked a weak theocracy without military might and of no economic or strategic interest to America, recently chastened by the Korean War. It did not put in an Article 370, take it to the UN or agree to a plebiscite.  Foolish Nehru, whom Chou is rumored to have called a useful idiot, raised no major protest, gave asylum to the Dalai Lama and continued to babble Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai, while still espousing China’s claim to the UN Security Council permanent seat. He made no attempt to arm India, ignored armament procurement scandals and pontificated on the sacrosanct status of colonial boundaries, like the McMahon line.  To continue its long-term objective, China attacked India and reclaimed much of what it desired.  Once again it chose a weak opponent but still did not shy away from confronting a stronger one when challenged.  It made no attempt to reclaim the lands north of the Amur River from the Soviet Union, as it was not powerful enough and needed to acquire nuclear technology from it.  Later, when the fallout with the Soviets occurred, there were skirmishes and Mao built underground shelters in case of nuclear attack. China did not have nuclear weapons and the Soviets did, but China did not roll over and play possum, a favorite Indian strategy. It exploded an atom bomb in 1964. Mao in his idiocy, dotage or mania committed the follies that led to famines and the Cultural Revolution, but still supported Vietnam and made friendly overtures to Pakistan to stifle India.  It weaned Bangladesh away from India and has continued to support pariah Burma. This has allowed it to obtain a listening post in the Bay of Bengal, close to The Indian naval base in Vishakhapatnam and India’s missile launch site.  Similar facilities have been obtained by China at the Pakistani port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea. After Nixon’s blunder of courting China and the rehabilitation of Deng, The Chinese Communist party realized that economic and technological modernization was mandatory.  In 1979 after Vietnam overthrew the Cambodian maniac Pol Pot, China attacked its ally Vietnam, to teach it a lesson.  It fared badly, but retained its credibility.  It got into the good books of its newly found partner America, which supported the genocidal criminal Pol Pot, because he was an enemy of its former enemy, Vietnam.  This is another instance of enlightened America preaching democracy. 

China continued to sell arms to both Iran and Iraq and later to Saudi Arabia to obtain foreign exchange.  It enlisted Israeli expertise.  Like Pakistan, its armed forces owned many corporations and the profits were used to modernize the PLA and to reward the princes and princesses, who were the children of party elites and PLA generals. It also utilized these corporations to garner western technology and indulge in industrial espionage.  It appealed to the large Chinese Diaspora in Hong Kong (still under British control then), Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the West to shift manufacturing to the mainland. The crony capitalism and the oppression of its own masses by banning unions and forcing slave labor helped to enrich the powerful, provide employment to prevent unrest (a major communist party concern) and obtain technology, as well as foreign exchange to modernize the armed forces.  Helicopters and radar were bought even from America.  A few pretences of freedom were advertised, but when excesses intolerable to the party occurred, there was no hesitation in massacring the students in Tiananmen Square, irrespective of the alienation and embargoes of the West. The key here is the retaining of credibility, which becomes important as Clinton and NATO realized, when they were forced to bomb Serbia after repeatedly ignored ultimatums. India should take note.  Espionage helped to obtain the W88 miniaturized nuclear warhead and continues till today, as a recent conviction of a woman Chinese professor for selling special computer components proves. She was jailed by the Chinese for spying, and released at the behest of the Bush administration. It was later discovered that she was selling forbidden materials to China. 

By amassing huge dollar reserves, China was able to ignore US requests to revalue its currency upwards and modify American policy on Taiwan by having Bush warn Taiwan not to proceed with an independence referendum.  In past confrontations with America about Taiwan, PLA generals have made public threats by stating that America will have to decide which to save Los Angeles or Taipei from a nuclear attack. The lesson is, that repeated knuckling under is rewarded only with contempt or disregard.  If one’s position is weak, it maybe best not to threaten.  Amassing an army at the border to threaten and then demoting a general because a puppet master pulls your strings, does not gain respect for the threats or the nation. The Chinese responses to the mistaken bombing of its embassy in Belgrade and the spy plane forced to land on Hainan after a collision with an aggressive Chinese aircraft, show that it cannot be bullied into submission. 

Even while it continues friendly trade with America, it amasses money to modernize and provide employment to its restless young population, its defense strategy prepares for a nuclear war with America.  David Shambaugh’s book on Modernizing China’s Military gives details of organization, doctrine, equipment and strategy.  It is upgrading capabilities in electronic warfare and defense. It continues to counter India by supporting Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. It licenses technology from Russia and does not reclaim Siberian land from Russia. It is sending Chinese people to trade and settle in Siberia and improving relations with Central and Southeast Asia, thus ensuring reliable oil and gas supplies. It is taking a leaf out of America’s grand strategy of promoting chauvinistic nationalism as a unifying factor to divert the attention of the population from economic disparities and other regional or ethnic fissiparous tendencies.

There is a clear grand vision of the Chinese leadership though tainted by personal greed and lust for power. Here again there is a similarity to America.  The point to be emphasized is that there is a well thought out plan and strategy by China. It concentrated on manufacture and infrastructure, to improve technology and money for the nation and jobs for the masses, to achieve military and economic superiority. This is what England, America, Japan and the Asian tigers did. America’s self generated de-industrialization is a major cause of China’s reindustrialization and world deflation, just as America’s globalization is the cause of increasing poverty at home and in developing nations.  Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize winning economics professor with experience in the Clinton administration and the World Bank has two scathing and honest evaluations of US economic policies in his books, Globalization and its Discontents and the Roaring Nineties. India’s crowing about its service economy at the cost of neglecting a manufacturing base is a foolishness that may come back to haunt it.  IT outsourcing, whether it is call centers, BPO, accounting, financial analysis, medical transcription or image interpretation are ephemeral goodies that can move to other pastures, based on costs, whims or convenience. Adam Smith over two hundred years ago made a poignant observation nabout merchants equally applicable to multinational corporations today.  He said, a merchant is not necessarily the citizen of any particular country.  It is in a great measure indifferent to him from what place he carries on his trade; and a very trifling disgust will make him remove his capital, and together with it all the industry, which it supports, from one country to another.  No part of it can be said to belong to any particular country till it has been spread, as it were, over the face of that country, either in buildings or in the lasting  improvement of lands.  No vestige now remains of the great wealth said to have been possessed by the greater part of the Hanse Towns (trading towns of the Hanseatic League of merchants), except in the obscure histories of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is even uncertain where some of them were situated, or to what towns in Europe, the Latin names given to some of them belong. 

The dark clouds that China faces are the bankrupt, overstaffed and unproductive state enterprises, a banking system with non-performing loans exceeding their capital, marked regional economic disparities, and a restless pool of 200 million migrant unemployed.

These are all highly combustible, just waiting for a spark to become a conflagration. The leaders have tried to pour a flame retardant by dizzying growth and enforcing slave labor for foreign manufacturers bringing in capital.  The unintended consequences of growing the economy rapidly and efficiently are soaring inflation, worsening the privations of poverty and more unemployed, deprived of the iron bowl, due to layoffs from shutting down useless factories, producing unwanted goods by overabundant, but redundant workers. To provide a safety valve for building pressures of unemployment, China is now exporting labor, some in slave form.  It sent workers to Israel to replace barred Palestinians under conditions that they cannot marry Israeli women or use the services of Israeli prostitutes.  It is sending farmers to sparsely populated Kazakhstan to farm excess fallow land.  It is sending Chinese to perform odd jobs in the Russian Far East.  The latter two countries are on a dangerous path. They forget that Mexico accepted surplus Americans to settle in Texas and when they became a powerful majority, Texas seceded from Mexico, became independent and subsequently joined the US as a state! 

China has an understanding of Napoleon’s famous statement that an army marches on its stomach.  Napoleon was talking of the food supply logistics, but the current meaning includes supplies of ammunition, air support etc. and really boils down to the economy of the nation and its technological prowess, which feeds, supplies and arms the military.  India needs to develop self- sufficiency in ammunition and spare parts first. It cannot depend on any foreign collaborators.  China ambitiously aims to deter the strongest power on earth, America.  It cannot match the US, but still has ICBMs to deter it partially, by being able to inflict unacceptable damage.  It is also preparing to survive a nuclear war, in spite of overwhelming damage and casualties.  The deterrence doctrine is based on an element of rationality, inhibiting even a stronger power.  It has a no first use policy only against a non-nuclear power.  There is no possibility of America and India fighting a war at present, but it is wise to consider China’s strategy, which is to aim at the highest and mightiest.  Setting up such high goals gives a nation some margin to fail.  There is no power on earth that can match America, but you do not see it resting on its laurels.  Perhaps it carries things to another extreme by its huge defense expenditures at the cost of neglecting other domestic and international priorities.  Wisdom lies in learning by others mistakes and experience. Foolishness lies in not learning even by ones own mistakes and experience. Occasional foolishness maybe inevitable, persistent foolishness is detrimental and can even be fatal! 

(The author is a retired neurophysician and an occasional writer. The views expressed are his own. Email-  .)